Why Criminalizing Teen Sexuality Isn’t The Best Way To Keep Our Youth Safe

(Credit: USA Today)

This month, West Virginia became the latest state to ban teen sexting. Under the state’s new law, minors are barred from making, having, or distributing material that portrays another minor in an “inappropriate sexual manner.” Those who come in violation of the law will be charged with “an act of delinquency” and, instead of being faced with criminal charges, will be required to enroll in an educational program to learn more about the potential long-term consequences of sexting.

West Virginia law already prohibited adults from sexting with minors — a situation that represents a clear abuse of power, and can fall under child pornography charges. The new measure goes further to restrict this type of sexual activity among peers. “I think it’s long overdue,” one parent told a local NBC affiliate. “I think [sexting] gets our [nation’s] kids in a lot of trouble, gets them active in sex way earlier than they should be.”

That attitude is likely mirrored in the other states across the country that have imposed some legislation to address youth sexting. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 20 states have enacted some kind of teen sexting measure. Some legislative pushes in this area have been a response to incidences of cyberbullying, and hope to prevent teens from distributing explicit photos in a way that is intended to cause emotional harm. The anti-sexting laws range from requiring schools to distribute educational materials about the dangers of sexting, to fining high schoolers for being in possession of an explicit photo on their cell phone, to serving teens with a misdemeanor change for texting a sexual image of themselves.

Of course, it’s incredibly important to make teens aware of the long-term consequences of their actions, encourage healthy sexual behavior, and crack down on cyberbullying. But punishing teens for their sexual activity isn’t necessarily the best way to go about accomplishing any of those goals. First of all, despite the media’s consistent hand-wringing over the perils of new technology and the corruption of American youth, sexting is not actually an inherently dangerous sexual activity. It’s not necessarily correlated to other types of more “deviant” behavior, either. And ultimately, sexting bans don’t proactively encourage teens to safeguard their sexual health.

That’s because this type of legislation doesn’t help foster a culture in which teens grow up learning how to respect themselves and others, make responsible choices, and honor their sexual partners’ consent. Instead, anti-sexting laws simply further the pervasive attitude that expressions of teen sexuality are always dangerous and shameful. As the failures of abstinence education programs have already demonstrated, stigmatizing sexual expression isn’t actually an effective way to keep teens safe, since it doesn’t encourage them to practice healthy behavior or feel comfortable enough to ask questions. And, if teachers and principals are empowered to confiscate students’ phones to investigate potential illegal behavior, anti-sexting laws could also create a high school environment where every teen is automatically a suspect.

Worse still, emphasizing the dangers of sexting walks a delicate line — and can actually further a victim-blaming rape culture, where the burden of preventing sexual crimes isn’t actually placed on the perpetrators of those crimes. Two partners sending explicit photos to each other isn’t a violation of anyone’s consent. If one of those individuals decides to forward that image to other friends, without the knowledge or consent of the person depicted in the photo, that’s a problem — but one that the person who snapped the photo didn’t create, and shouldn’t necessarily be penalized for. All too often, those divides fall along gender lines. In a recent PSA urging teens to refrain from sexting, the message is specifically aimed at young women — even though studies have shown that male and female teens sext at equal rates, and it’s actually the young men who are nearly twice as likely as young women to distribute a sexually explicit photo among other peers.

Anti-sexting measures are hardly the only way that society attempts to police teen sexuality. That attitude is also evident in the abstinence-only education programs that don’t equip high schoolers with the tools they need to protect their sexual health, the continued resistance to the HPV vaccine based on the myth that it will somehow make girls “sexually promiscuous,” the state-level proposals to criminalize “gateway sexual activity” or force teens to get a notarized permission slip from their parents to get an STD test, the right-wing hysteria over proposals to make emergency contraception more widely available to teens, and the shame-based messages that teen mothers receive.